The Holocaust: Our Own Flesh and Blood, Part II

The question of Jewish identity changed completely after the Holocaust.

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Rabbi Eliezer Melamed,

Holocaust mass grave
Holocaust mass grave
Lazer Brody

An article in two parts. For part I, click here.

We are familiar with the common claim that it is difficult to imagine the State of Israel having come into existence without the Holocaust. I once mentioned this in a talk I gave on the Holocaust. Afterward, an old man who had lost his entire family in the Holocaust approached me and asked, "Is the state really worth all of those who died? After all, our state lacks the sort of Jews who were killed in the Holocaust." He continued to ask me, weeping, "Do you even know what sort of Jews were killed in the Holocaust? So pious, so holy - impossible to describe!"

True, comparing the punishment of the Holocaust with what came in its wake - the State of Israel - does not appear just and the old man was to a large degree justified in his claims. In some of the towns where Jews resided there were literally street after street of pious and holy Jews, genuine Torah scholars. In Poland, in Galicia. In the city of Warsaw alone there were a million Jews! This is even more than the amount of Jews who live in Jerusalem today. In smaller towns, like Bialystok, there were 150,000 Jews. In Boisk there were 50,000 Jews. And there were many more in towns which were not considered particularly large. Is it possible to even think about forfeiting all this for the State of Israel with all of its problems?

Indeed, when one looks at the "Why" - the reason - it is difficult to accept that these millions of Jews had to die for the sake of the birth of the State of Israel. But when one considers to what end, toward what goal the Holocaust was meant to propel us, it is possible to accept such a viewpoint.

Everyone acknowledges that the Holocaust shook the Jewish world to its very foundations. The question of Jewish identity changed completely after the Holocaust. Every Jew, no matter how religious, became a living sanctification of God in the world as a result of his very existence. The intention had been to wipe out the entire nation, every one of us, regardless of religiosity. If prior to the Holocaust it had been widely accepted that only observant Jews were capable of sanctifying God, today it is clear that the very survival of the Jew as a Jew is regarded as an act of sanctification.

The Lubavitcher Rebbe zt"l has written words to this effect, as has Rabbi Chaim Drukhman: "Every Jew is an expression of the immutability of Israel." This is, without doubt, a completely new level of understanding with regard to Jewish identity.

Without doubt, all of the innocent babies who were killed in the Holocaust were also received by angels who made sure that they be nurtured upon honey from the rock - not in this world, but in the eternal world.
In a more general sense, a revolution in Jewish consciousness was affected, and every Jew, no matter where he was, began to clarify who we are as a people and what is our purpose. We must continue this process. We are still in the midst of this first stage. Still in the midst of the trauma. The more relevant question continues to be "For what purpose?" and not "Why?"

The Holocaust is not a personal, individual issue. It is very difficult for a lone individual to arrive at any kind of estimate of what the Holocaust means to him personally, no matter how much time he invests considering it. It is a large, all-embracing, national issue which has left its mark on a deep inner layer of each one of us, such that even we are not always aware of it.

Accordingly, it finds expression in a more general, national level, and relates to the public as a whole. Hence, one hears important voices in the non-Jewish world making statements to the effect that the behavior of the Jewish people must be understood in light of the fact that they have a "Holocaust complex." It is easier for one who looks upon the Jews from the outside to sense that something in us changed as a result of the Holocaust. Yet, it is possible to discern clearly enough by examining the attitude of the public that the concept of the Holocaust, like the Exodus, has been permanently etched upon the Jewish soul.

If we understand the term "redemption" to mean a spiritual world revolution of the sort which results in life being seen in an entirely different light, it is possible that the Holocaust has in fact laid the foundation for such a thing. Such an approach can be discerned in the words of the verse, "As I live, says the Lord God, surely with a mighty hand, and with an outstretched arm, and with anger poured out, will I be king over you" (Ezekiel 20:33).

It clears the path for a period of searching for something else. And though it begins in a rather harsh manner, it must nonetheless be considered a new and higher level.

It is impossible at present to look for the cause of the Holocaust. Such a search yields no practical fruits and is not the correct approach to dealing with tragedy at this early stage. We are still in a state of mourning - an all-encompassing understanding is still far from us.

And while it is true that in the Talmud we find sages searching for the cause of Israelite bondage in Egypt, and concluding that it was the result of Abraham's having made use of Torah scholars in his war with the four kings (cf. Deuteronomy 32a), even so, neither the Torah nor the sages present us with plain historical facts. The reason for this is that they were aiming more in the direction of answering the question: "For what purpose?" - i.e., what needed to be rectified as a result of this tragedy?

Tosefoth Yom Tov's claim that the Chmelnitzki pogroms erupted because Jews made a practice of prattling about mundane affairs in the Synagogue must be understood in a similar light. What this eminent rabbi desired was for people to abandon this practice, that this be the lesson that they gather from the tragedy - or one of the lessons at any rate.

It is possible to understand this idea on an even deeper level if we take a look at the course of Jewish history:

One thousand years ago, in the time of Rashi, Sephardic Jewry was ten times the size of Ashkenazic Jewry. Then, Ashkenazic Jewry was almost completely destroyed as a result of the Crusades; of the one or two hundred thousand Ashkenazic Jews, fifty thousand were ruthlessly killed. What was the result? The result was a very strong awareness of the importance of sanctifying God's name through self-sacrifice.

Within five or six hundred years the Sephardic population was only three times as large as the Ashkenazic. At the outbreak of the Chmelnitzki pogroms the number of Ashkenazic Jews had reached almost a million. Once again this Jewish community was struck by a devastating slaughter. Entire communities of pure and holy Jews were wiped out with great cruelty. And once again, in the wake of this disaster, it became clear to just what extent the Jewish faith is a question of life or death, and to just what extent the Jews as a people were willing to sacrifice their lives for their religious convictions.

This left a great imprint on the generations that followed, and within a span of no more than three hundred years, reaching up to the period just prior to the Holocaust, the Jews as a whole had swollen in number to between 15-16 million. In retrospect, it is possible to see quite clearly how the act of sanctification of God's name through death provided a great impetus to the generations that followed, pushing them a number of levels higher.

Who among us is really capable of coming to accurate conclusions regarding long-term effects based upon the present? We might interpret the words of the Tosafoth Yom Tov "that they not chatter in the Synagogue" to mean that they should appreciate the sanctity of the synagogue, the "miniature Holy Temple" that it is, and recognize the value of prayer.

We can also say that the shock of these tragic events caused a sense of added responsibility regarding the study of Torah. Because so many Jews were willing to literally give their lives for the Torah, the generations that followed felt a great desire to attain new heights of strengthened Jewish identity. Now the value of Torah study was understood, now it was clear why they hate us.

The same is true of the Holocaust, only that this time we are talking about the entire Jewish people as opposed to a particular community. The Holocaust is also meant to provide added consciousness of just how much our lives as Jews must be full of meaning. We must be made aware of just how much responsibility rests on our shoulders - we who survived and carry on after the destruction of that generation.

There are numerous tales about the first waves of settlers to arrive in the Land of Israel and the sort of self-sacrifice that they demonstrated in order to reach and settle Israel. We ought to emulate these builders and carry on their work.

The first wave of immigrants was composed for the most part of pious Jews whose coming to Israel was the outgrowth of what they had absorbed in the Yeshiva study halls. The founders of Zikhron Yaakov made their way to Israel after having already purchased a portion of land, but the Turkish administration did not allow these new arrivals to disembark at any port in the area from Alexandria to Beirut. Finally, after great effort, they managed to land at Haifa, and from there they made their way in carriages pulled by oxen until eventually arriving at their destination. So difficult was the way that the travelers were forced to send the oxen on ahead of themselves in order to render the path travelable.

Their allotted plot of land was full of snakes and scorpions, and far from any other Jewish settlement (two days journey from Yaffo, and a day and half from Haifa). From where would they receive their necessities? To where would they deliver their products? When the officials of Baron Rothschild arrived they demanded to know who was responsible for the injustice that had been done to these settlers by having them sent to such a horrid location. Yet, despite all this, when the officials offered to have them relocated in a more central site, the settlers' response was notably straightforward: We are not budging from this place, even if its means eating the stones themselves.

Large waves of Jewish immigration to Israel did not necessarily begin as a result of the First Zionist Congresses in Basel (in the manner that secular Zionism has attempted to portray). Long before this, in 5637 (1878), Jews of the Old Settlement began to set out beyond the walls of Jerusalem. One such pioneer was Yoel Moshe Solomon. He belonged to the third generation of a family of pioneers.

His grandfather, Rabbi Zalman Tzoref, was murdered in a skirmish with Arabs while trying to reestablish the Churvah Synagogue in Jerusalem's Old City. In his memory, the family name was changed to Solomon. His son was the "first Jewish 'Fellah' (field laborer) since the days of the second Temple," or at least so he was called.

It was in such a home that Rabbi Yoel Moshe grew up. He presented Moses Montefiore with a detailed plan for creating a Jewish agricultural settlement. He was also a serious Torah scholar, the editor of a newspaper, a journalist, and completely steeped in Torah. He left his newspaper work in order to establish Petach Tikvah. This young settlement too had its share of difficulties; there was a period in which it was completely destroyed due to the great hardships that came upon it. The settlers left and went to Yahudiyeh, and only later did there arrive a group of Jews from Bialystok (the hometown of Rabbi Mohilever, the leader of the Zionist organization "Chovevei Tzion") and reestablish the settlement.

In Hadera there was a very green area, and the local Arabs warned the Jewish settlers that the place was infested with malaria. During the course of the first seven years, 230 of Hadera's the 512 settlers died of this disease.

It is told that on Yom Kippur, there were just enough settlers present for the prayer services to take place in the room adjacent to the hospital room. During the course of the day one of the members fell ill and expired leaving the settlers short of their quorum. They were uncertain as to whether or not they should to continue, yet, in the end, they decided that God Himself would be counted in order to complete their quorum.

When the fast was over it was announced that before eating it was necessary to bury the deceased. In order to overcome the near-unbearable sadness which accompanied the loss, one of those present, himself a Torah scholar, advised the people to rejoice in the burial. And they did just that - they danced by the grave of the deceased. At a later date, the very same individual, who had always said that joy is the cure for everything, also died of malaria.

Today, when traveling along Israel's coastal road, which runs between Haifa and Tel Aviv, we must remember the great self-sacrifice of the early settlers which gave birth to such settlement, all by virtue of a love for the land which they passed down to the generations to come. Such self-sacrifice shakes all existence and sets the machine in motion. They initiated it all.

This, then, is an example of a "for what purpose" lesson which we must carry with us. There is a principle here which must be remembered: The world is a unified whole, and the actions of one individual make waves which shake the entire community. Torah is the heart of the world and fills existence with vibrancy and meaning. When an individual attaches himself to the Torah, studies with all of his might, and applies his studies in all spheres of his life, his behavior has a great and powerful impact.

This, then, is the chief lesson one should gather from the Holocaust: to be a thousand times more serious; to know how to appreciate eternal values, such as Torah and settlement, and to be ready to sacrifice oneself for such things. This is what the previous generations handed down to us through their demonstration of courage.

Could the Holocaust ever be Forgotten?

No. This could never happen. No doubt there is a need to educate toward awareness, to study the facts and to retell what happened. But such steps are carried out on an individual basis, in relation to specific individuals or groups. As far as the collective memory of the nation of Israel is concerned, there is no chance of forgetting. As we have noted, the Holocaust is deeply etched into our memory and influences our national behavior in ways that we are not always aware of.

Once again, the emphasis is not to be placed on understanding things - we are still at too early a stage. The true goal is recognizing those values which are important to us as a nation, and reinforcing them. The Holocaust was an attack upon Israel's eternal nature; its victory will find expression in a strengthening of our eternal Israeli values.

The Exodus from Egypt

An example of a difficult event that has been completely internalized and is today understood by us is the Exodus from Egypt. Here too we find horrific acts: enslavement, slave labor with bricks and cement, the male newborns being cast into the Nile or plastered into the walls of buildings. Appalling. Yet, enough time has past in order to understand why all of this happened, and today the enslavement is not so painful. We are now able to look back at it and to recount the various events therein and to confidently state why this had to be the foundation upon which the Jewish people would be built. We have managed to digest this.

The Midrash teaches us that when the Egyptians threw the Jewish babies into the Nile, God commanded the ministering angels to look after them. "The children of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob are being thrown into the Nile and all you do is stand by and watch?" God accused the angels. They immediately came to their senses and went down upon their knees on the banks of the Nile to receive the babies. They placed them on the stones, which turned into breasts from which the babies then nursed" (Shir HaShirim Rabbah).

It appears to me that the message of this Midrash is that the babies were received by the angels on these rocks, not in this world, but in the World to Come. They were received. They did not die in vain. They entered into the eternal consciousness of the Jewish people and pushed it a number of levels forward.

Without doubt, all of the innocent babies who were killed in the Holocaust were also received by angels who made sure that they be nurtured upon honey from the rock - not in this world, but in the eternal world.

We, the Jewish people, are like this. We are an eternal people. In the true and absolute world everything works out and everything is clear. In this temporal world of ours there are complications and troubles.

Regarding the Exodus from Egypt we were first of all called upon to understand for what purpose - i.e., what is demanded of us as a people who suffered such a brutal enslavement and was redeemed through miracles and wonders. Later we also merited understanding the Why which accompanies all of this.

Our goal is to attain a similar level of understanding with regard to the Holocaust, to the point where it provides us with lessons similar in nature to those of the Exodus from Egypt. We must strive to understand them in the most profound manner possible, the way we do at Passover when the bitter Maror, which serves to remind us of Egyptian enslavement, is eaten together with the Matzah, which represents freedom.